Eddie Van Halen wasn’t one to dwell on the past. The legendary guitar player famously claimed during his interview with Denise Quan for the Smithsonian Museum of American History that he had never bought or listened to any music after Peter Gabriel’s So, which came out in 1987. When it came to looking back, Van Halen mostly preferred to look forward.
Part of that was down to his inventive nature. Van Halen listed few inspirations and idols over his career because he was always attempting to forge his own path: he didn’t hear the playing style that he liked best in anyone else, so he had to create it himself. If the meant he had to build his own guitar to do it, then that’s what he would do.
But Van Halen did have influences. They might be somewhat unexpected, considering his playing style: Van Halen never cited traditional shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen or Uli John Roth, despite their mix of lighting fast licks and references to classical music that Van Halen adopted in his own playing.
Instead, Van Halen was a classic rock guy through and through. Surprisingly, considering how Van Halen was never one to use sparseness or restraint, Van Halen’s number one influence appears to have been British six-string master Eric Clapton.
“Clapton was it. I knew every note he played. That’s what I was known for around home. Me, Alex and another bass player called ourselves Mammoth and we were the junior Cream,” Eddie explained to Guitar Player in 1981. “I haven’t heard anyone do a long interesting guitar solo outside of early Clapton. I do a guitar solo in the live show which is long. Some people may think it’s boring, but I have fun. Clapton was my favourite.”
Van Halen even seemed to acknowledge the strange contrast of styles between him and his hero. “It’s funny. When I do interviews and tell people Clapton was my main influence, they go ‘Who?’ Because they’re thinking about Clapton doing ‘Lay Down Sally’, not the Bluesbreakers or Cream.”
Metal pioneers Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore were also important early influences for Van Halen. The mix of propulsive rock and loud proto-metal would have a lasting effect on Eddie and his own playing. Still, it always came back to Clapton for Van Halen. Despite some occasional criticism, Van Halen was a lifelong fan of Clapton’s work, especially his bluesier early days.